Story: Vera is awakened late one night by a knock at her Greenwich Village apartment door. It’s her 21-year-old grandson Leo, anything but fresh after a cross-country bicycling adventure from Seattle.
While she scurries to find him some food and bedding, they catch up haphazardly on the lives of their mutual relatives. Communication isn’t easy, both because 91-year-old Vera is prone not to wearing her hearing aid and also because Leo is abrupt and rather impulsive in his thoughts and behavior.
Over the next few weeks, though, the two left-leaning political activists learn to enjoy their badinage as well as revealing their own shortcomings. Leo is grieving over the accidental death of his cycling pal Micah as well as reacting against the frequent need for reassurance about his safety by his more conservative mother Jane back home in St. Paul. There’s also the matter of his relationship with his adopted sister Lily, a little too close for the comfort of either Jane or Vera.
Leo hopes to reconnect with his former girlfriend Becca while in New York, but Becca has ambitious plans that don’t include Leo. Still, she has feelings for him that rise to the surface in a contentious meeting at Vera’s apartment.
Vera is an unrepentant communist knocked down by the deaths of too many friends, while Leo is a strong-willed, free spirit raging against the injustices of life. In their time together they learn more about each other and what bonds them.
Highlights: New Jewish Theatre brings down the curtain on its 20th season with a tenderly crafted interpretation of Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize-finalist drama under Edward Coffield’s softly focused direction.
Other Info: Herzog’s one-act, 90-minute work debuted off-Broadway in 2011 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Like another of her efforts, After the Revolution, it features a character based on her real-life grandmother, Leepee Joseph, an ardent leftist of causes in the 20th and even the 21st centuries.
A production of 4000 Miles at The Rep in 2013 was marred by a portrayal of Leo as boorish and obnoxious, either because of the presentation’s director or the actor in the role. Whatever the reason, New Jewish Theatre’s version seems much closer to realizing the tenderness of the relationships between characters referenced in reviews of the play’s off-Broadway productions.
Director Coffield paints gentler portraits of the primary characters here which are realized in satisfying fashion by Amy Loui as the inquisitive Vera and Chris Tipp as her rudderless grandson. The two connect grandly as they enact conversations between grandmother and grandson that also show them to be friends and allies, though not without conflict. Coffield’s pacing is steady and low-key throughout.
Loui is far too vital and energized to be convincing as a nonagenarian at first glance. She quickly proves her mettle, however, by convincing an audience with her halting gait and shaking hand that she can assume the role of the feisty Vera and claim it as her own, aided by movement coach Jaimie McKittrick. She’s also engagingly amusing in a scene where she shares some thoughts and weed with the laid-back Leo as they ponder life and their own experiences with it.
Tipp portrays Leo as a bit flighty and aimless, but he shapes the character’s crude language with a soft edge that is essential to make Leo a likable figure. He’s adept at showing the young man’s aching vulnerability in his awkward reunion with Becca, a woman he loves but doesn’t really understand.
Rachel Fenton fits the role of Becca like a well-worn glove, slipping into the character’s good manners upon meeting Vera while additionally depicting the ambitious student’s frustrations with her comparatively immature lover, power chewing her gum all the while. It’s difficult to watch the growing chasm between the two that appears inevitable albeit painful.
Grace Langford does well in a small role as a young Chinese-American girl whose promiscuity veers away sharply when she learns about the communist leanings of Leo’s family, as she pointedly explains. Annie Barbour provides the disembodied voice of Lily in a scene where Leo ‘skypes’ with Lily on Vera’s unused computer.
Scenic designer Marissa Todd fashions a tidy representation of Vera’s faded apartment, which hasn’t been remodeled in nearly 40 years and features furniture prevalent in the Mad Men era of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, complemented by Laura Srkoska’s props, such as several old photographs on the back wall.
Interestingly, Zoe Sullivan’s sound design is dominated by tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s, a little beyond Vera’s youthful era and certainly before Leo even existed. Perhaps the music of the middle generation represented by the unseen Jane serves as a bridge between the older and younger leftists.
Costuming by Michele Friedman Siler fits each of the four characters, while Michael Sullivan’s lighting captures the times of the day as well as the tenor of the conversations.
As NJT artistic director Kathleen Sitzer and director Coffield each favorably note in the show’s program, 4000 Miles is “a small play with a big heart.”
Play: 4000 Miles
Company: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: May 17, 18, 20, 21, 24, 25, 27, 28
Tickets: $39.50-$43.50; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.